High school and university students are suffering from unprecedented levels of anxiety, and anyone raising teenagers these days knows they're coping with huge amounts of stress. This goes double for girls, who have what Rachel Simmons calls "role overload" in her book Enough as She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy and Fulfilling Lives. Girls have to be smart and beautiful and athletic and ... they have to look as though playing all these roles takes no effort at all.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona/Lifehacker/GMG
Simmons calls this "chill girl" teen culture: Girls have to get good grades but never visibly study, be thin but wolf down burgers with the guys, stay up late and party but never flag in their studies or extracurriculars, and they have to be game for sexual hookups but not be overly needy or dramatic. The final kicker? Girls then feel huge pressure to hide any distress that comes from these impossible expectations. After all, everyone else is effortlessly succeeding.
But parents shouldn't despair - she offers several valuable tips for combating your kids' stressful, "chill girl" culture.
Keep an Open Dialogue About Social Media
Teen girls have always engaged in "social comparison", even before the advent of social media. But Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat let users curate their public personas like never before, which means that girls may have a unrealistic idea of how fabulous everyone's life is as compared to hers. Simmons calls this the "why is my life so shitty and everyone else's so awesome?" phenomenon. For kids already prone to anxiety or depression, these scrolling sessions can be brutal.
With her students, Simmons uses two strategies: One, to really drill down into the effort it takes to take, for example, a "perfect" photo. (She recounts a conversation with student about a two-hour photo session to take one snap that made the subject look thin.) A curated life on social media takes time and effort - no one posts about being unshowered, bored and scarfing chips in bed.
Two, she points out to them that others' successes aren't their failures. Even if a classmate wins a competition or gets into Harvard, that has nothing to do with anyone else's achievements. Simmons suggests some exercises from The Body Image Workbook for Teens by Julia Taylor, such as asking, "What am I getting out of putting myself down in relation to someone else? What's the reward? Is there a long-term cost?"
She also suggests reframing any negative thought processes: Instead of thinking "Annie is prettier than me" after seeing a pic on Instagram, your daughter might replace that with "Annie is pretty". Annie's looks are not a benchmark for anyone else's looks - Taylor says, "Try to see these people for what they are, not for what you're not." In other words, Annie's prettiness does not make you not pretty.
Tell Them It's OK Not to Be OK
Simmons believes that the demand for effortless perfection, as well as unrealistic standards of beauty, are eroding girls' relationships: They're overworked, and they hide their distress about "role overload" from their friends (after all, everyone is managing this effortlessly, right?). And then, to top it all off, they simply don't have enough downtime with friends to forge real bonds.
Cultivating a perfect persona, both online and IRL, means that girls are rarely authentic and vulnerable with anyone - even each other.
Girls think that admitting that they're struggling is a mark of weakness. But they need to know that they can ask their friends and family for extra support in challenging times, or seek counseling if they need to.
Teens also need to know that that it's OK to drop an extracurricular or a sport - if your daughter is overwhelmed, she's allowed to lighten her load. Simmons describes the social lives of teens and university students: A busy week of school and sports, then going out to parties all weekend and staying up late. The girls felt as though they couldn't miss a social event for fear of missing out.
She writes, "Weekends, ostensibly a time to decompress, were now as full as 'supposed to' as the weekdays." Girls need to know that it's OK to say no - to decline an invitation, to drop a club, to turn down a hookup. Saying no to one thing leaves more time for other things - such as hanging out and watching TV with your family.
Somewhat counterintuitively, Simmons brings up the sport of "competitive complaining" among high school and university students. She calls this the stress Olympics; when I was in university we called it misery poker. Basically, someone offers a opening bid of "busyness": "I have two papers and a test tomorrow; I am so stressed!" and someone else matches and raises: "I have three papers, a test and an away game!" The bidding continues until everyone parts ways, still stressed and miserable. It's fun!
Now this might contradict the idea of "chill girl" culture, but when I was a teen, at least, it was a way of advertising exactly how much you could handle (and excel at) without cracking. Naturally, you're going to get an A on all those exams - even though you had only one night to study.
It might help to tell your daughters that in some cultures, being busy is a sign of being important - everyone wants your time; you're in demand - but in others (such as in Italy), it's leisure time that's the status symbol.
But if your daughter and her friends are playing a round of misery poker, it might help to exhibit empathy and solidarity rather than one-manship. Saying "Can I do anything?" for example, breaks the cycle of competitive stress. If "chill" culture is inhibiting teen friendships, then slowing down, listening to each other, and expressing compassion and support is one way to take the stress Olympics down a notch.
This isn't to say that complaining doesn't have a place - a lot of female bonding (and for that matter, social change) can come out of "shit sessions", but the end result has to be constructive, not competitive.
Be Frank About Your Own Stressors
Teen girls aren't the only ones struggling with "role overload": Mothers also feel they have be both breadwinners and homemakers, among other roles - and maintain an attractive appearance to boot. Simmons calls mothers the "primary socialisation agents" of their children, so if you're a mum, it might be helpful to discuss the cultural expectations placed on girls and women and share your own struggles.
It might even help to be open about your own role overload - to let your daughters know how you might feel as though you're coming up short as a breadwinner or perfect homemaker or attentive daughter. This could be especially valuable in a conversation about social media - mums are also guilty of curating their lives on Instagram, and your daughter might find it instructive to know that these are stressors that you're facing too (and handling, right?).
Enforce a Code of Conduct Around Alcohol and Drugs
Simmons cites a study in which two psychologists tracked affluent, high-achieving teens for a decade, concluding when the subjects turned 26. They found that the girls "were diagnosed with drug or alcohol addictions at three times the national rate" (the boys were twice as likely).
Girls drink to soothe their anxieties - "to slough off the good-girl shackles" - and in particular to ease the partying/hookup stress (girls are expected to be chill with casual sexual encounters but not be too promiscuous - a difficult line to walk). But that same decade-long study also showed that parental policies around drugs and alcohol mitigated the substance abuse.
Research has shown that parents who have a no-alcohol policy have teens less prone to excessive alcohol use. The so-called "European model", in which kids are allowed to drink at home to normalise social drinking, doesn't work - at least for American kids. The more they drink at home, the more they drink out and the more they're drinking three years later.
Now, does banning alcohol mean your teen, especially your university student, will never drink? No, of course not. But these parental values do have a protective effect - kids from homes in which alcohol use was forbidden drink less than those from more permissive homes.
Raising children in any way that bucks the prevailing culture is challenging. It can often feel as though you need to deprogram your kids daily - deleting the messages they get from their friends and the media about what it means to be happy and successful. But parents have huge influence on how girls see themselves and how they see the broader society. If you're lucky, you might not just succeed in teaching them to resist it, you'll teach them to change it.